A Dog’s Life – Welcome to Dáil Éireann
The dynamics of Irish politics this week have been extraordinary.
What we saw last night was the closest to a free vote we will ever see in Dáil Éireann.
The only grouping that stayed solid was Fine Gael.
Mattie McGrath defied Fianna Fail. So did Christy O’Sullivan (committing a venial rather than a mortal political sin).
Tommy Broughan went AWOL for last night’s vote and promptly lost the Labour Party whip. He said last night that he could not in conscience oppose a Bill, the principle of which the Labour Party had supported. He was consistent. But was still given the order of the boot by his parliamentary pary.
And then there was Arthur Morgan. Like the Labour Party, Sinn Fein has done a complete U-turn on stag hunting. A motion was passed at the 2009 Ard Fheis calling for a ban on all blood sports. Then the hare coursing fraternity within the party got to work and managed to completely reverse the decision at this year’s Ard Fheis.
Sinn Fein’s position now? It now opposes only three or four extreme forms of blood sport – bull fighting; cock fighting and dog fighting – but is no longer opposed in principle to any other form of blood sport. It presumably judges them on a case-by-case basis.
Arthur Morgan has a very strong view on all this. He supports the ban on stag hunting passionately. He was in a bit of a quandary yesterday. He would have voted to support the Bill if there was a free vote or even if it looked like the Government had the numbers to easily psas. But if it was close and the Government looked like falling, he might have been persuaded to vote against, as a protest against all the other Government policies and decisions he opposed.
The solution? He kicked up a racket yesterday afternoon and got chucked out of the Dáil. It essentially solved the problem at a stroke.
And then there was the flip-flop from two sets of independents. Maureen O’Sullivan and Finian McGrath who normally oppose the Government signalled early that they would support the Bill. Joe Behan said he was against.
But the fact that O’Sullivan and McGrath were supporting the Government gave Michael Lowry some wiggle room. He could safely oppose the Bill without defeating the Government because it looked like it had the numbers to secure the vote by two or three. He then persuaded Jackie Healy Rae to follow suit. Healy Rae perfected another U-turn. He said he was opposed to stag hunting last weekend. Yesterday, he was for it. Consistent in his inconsistency.
The Dáil chamber is shaped like a small amphitheatre. The senior members of the party sit at the bottom with others above them. At the top of each stairs there is a kind of mezzanine that encircles the pit below.
The Fianna Fail huddle at the top of the stairs was extraordinary last night. A number of deputies – Eamon O Cuiv; Brendan Smith; Michael McGrath; Ned O’Keeffe; and John Browne – crowded around the two dissidents, imploring with them to stay onside. While both were opposed to the stag hunting legislation, the big issue for them was the Dog Breeding Establishments Bill which will come onto the radar on Friday and be voted on next week.
“We kept on telling them to keep their powder dry for that, to stay on board and fight to get the right amendments,” said one of the TDs involved in the last-minute pleas. The Government Chief Whip John Curran became involved, but not Brian Cowen who seemed to stay aloof from all the action (he had earlier refused in the parliamentary party meeting to get involved in any huddle with unhappy TDs).
The normal system for voting is by electronic means. TDs press a switch that provides two options: Tá and Níl. If they abstain they don’t press the button. The Yes votes comes up as green dots on the display screen showing the seating plan. For a yes vote last night, there was a sea of green dots on the FF side. Christy O’Sullivan relented at the last minute. His green dot lit up. But then there was the red dot that popped up for Mattie, a surefire indication that he was getting his marching orders.
“If you were a horse, Mattie, they would have to put you down,” quipped Pat Rabbitte.
Mattie came back later with the quote of the night.
“Green people want to close the zoo, want to stop horseracing, they want to stop the pussycat going after the mouse.”
Fine Gael played some ungracious politics last night. Three pairs had been agreed last week for Ministers who were abroad. They had also agreed to two pairs for two Fianna Fail TDs who are ill. Then it emerged yesterday that two other Fianna Fail TDs were ill and were not in a position to attend.
Fine Gael offered no extra pairs. But rather ungraciously they removed two of the pairs for the second vote last night, putting the whole vote onto a knife edge.
There is still a lot to play for in these two pieces of animal welfare legislation. The Greens will compromise hugely on the dog breeding Bill but the question is will it do enough to assuage recalcitrant Fianna Failers? They want the greyhound industry and the hunting packs to be exempt from the Bill. The Fianna Fail deputy whip John Cregan last night said that they had made a lot of headway on greyhounds but other FF backbenchers were worrying allowed about hunting packs. At issue is a letter form 2008 which seems to clearly state that John Gormley has given the Irish Hunting Association a free pass. He will have some explaining to do if he wants to argue the contrary.
It’s all beginning to look a bit tenous for the Government.
Late last year, I believed the Government would survive for most of its term.
But a series of unforeseen illnesses since then, and backbench unhappinness over non-core issues (stag-hunting and dogs versus the economic crisis) have made me revise that radically.
Martin Cullen is gone. There are three by-elections which have to be held, all of which will narrow the margin. Five TDs from Fianna Fail will no longer hold the whip at the end of this week. A number of TDs have serious health issues that may force early retirment in one or two cases.
They will make it to the summer recess of 2010. I no longer believe they will make it to the summer recess of 2011.